Doing better

When I was in Ghana in July 2018 I had an interesting conversation with a Ghanaian Christian medical doctor. He is from a part of Ghana where there are very few Christians and where the poverty is not uncommon. He told me that he went out into a rural part of his home area where he met a pastor. The pastor is a man with no formal education, not even primary school. But he had learned to read in a literacy class and avidly reads the Bible In his own language. Like most pastors in Ghana, he is bi-vocational. That is, he receives little or no pay as a pastor and supports himself and his family through other activities. Being uneducated and living in rural Ghana means that he is probably a subsistence farmer, like many of his neighbors.

The doctor said with amazement that the uneducated pastor was clearly doing better than most of those around him who also lack education. He attributed the difference to the Gospel. That’s almost certainly right. There are lots of anecdotes and even at least one formal study linking better life outcomes in rural Ghana to reading the Bible.

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. – Acts 4:13

It’s professional

I asked a young Uber driver in Accra why he liked Uber. He responded: “Because it’s professional.”

In his culture, status and shame matter a lot. I could tell by his lack of mastery of English that he doesn’t have much education. So he has low status. But now he is part of something professional. He likes the status. He never did mention money, but he did mention specifics related to status and shame, including that he doesn’t get hassled at places where taxis (which have low status) get hassled.

You might find his ideas strange. But note that we Westerners tend to follow materialism – the idea that matter is all that matters (pun intended). So we would rate Uber based on its economic impact, whereas my Ghanaian Uber driver’s used an evaluation based on the non-material concept of human dignity.

That fits his culture. It also matches the findings of a World Bank report entitled Voices of the Poor which is a study of poverty based on interviews with 60,000 poor people in more than 50 countries. In it the poor often defined their poverty in non-material terms such lack of social connections and lack of respect.

Some Westerners are so stuck in their mindset of materialism that they criticize translating the Bible for the poor because that doesn’t meet material needs. But the poor people in question often support the translation. Why? Because they have a much more holistic view of their situation and its solutions than critics trapped in their western cultural materialism.

It is central to Christian faith that God’s care for us extends way beyond our material needs; our salvation is the example par excellence, but salvation does not stand alone. In the Beatitudes, Jesus presents an outline of human blessedness that relegates the material to its rightful niche.

We translate the Bible for the poor in part because the poor say it helps and it does, the objections of materialism notwithstanding.

Development by giving hope

The traditional approach to development work has been to provide things for people. If people lack education, we build them schools. If they are unhealthy, we build them hospitals. If their children suffer from repeated bouts of Malaria, we give them bed nets. If they don’t have clean water we drill a well. Providing things is always appropriate and necessary following disasters. But simply providing things in other cases can fail to truly transform. Today, few who are serious about sustainably improving the lot of the poor think that giving things is enough or even primary.

But to define development as an improvement in people’s well-being does not do justice to what the term means to most of us. Development also carries a connotation of lasting change. Providing a person with a bednet or a water pump can often be an excellent, cost-effective way to improve her well-being, but if the improvement goes away when we stop providing the bednet or pump, we would not normally describe that as development. (From an article What Development? by Owen Barder)

The key to development that ends poverty resides in the capacity of human beings to create lasting, positive change. It is therefore crucial that they believe that they can change things. Indeed, every time we provide something, we may be sending a subtle message to the recipients that we believe they are incapable of providing for themselves. By only providing things we may be reinforcing an inferiority complex among the poor.

Good development organizations understand this. Along with providing some basic resources that allow children to progress farther in school, Compassion International’s child-development efforts instill aspirations, character formation, and spiritual direction. In short, it tries to make actors and givers instead of passive receivers. The best development creates an environment where people solve their own problems.

Some laugh at the idea of giving poor people the Bible in their language, saying that what  they really need is concrete things. This criticism reflects a simplistic understanding (misunderstanding actually) of development. Many of the poor know this. They do not define their poverty strictly in material terms. Furthermore, the Bible brings hope. It encourages people to act in faith that God is with them. Without the hope that things can change, people wallow in passive fatalism – in poverty of hope.

    An evaluation of the literacy and Bible translation programs of the Ghanaian organization I work with, GILLBT, demonstrates that those who read the Bible in their own languages are more likely to take initiative, such as starting new businesses, than those who do not. Why? Because they have new hope and confidence. They believe God will bless their efforts. That kind of development is so much better, so much more sustainable, so much more affirming of them as persons, than just giving them things. Want to support efforts to reduce poverty that are centered on empowering people? Then support Bible translation. 

    Dis-honorable

    I was at a meeting where an African was giving a meditation on the story in Luke 13:10-17 where Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. She was completely bent over and could not straighten up. The person giving the meditation repeatedly asked his African listeners about this woman’s condition:

    Is that an honorable position?
    Is that an honorable position?
    Is that an honorable position?
    Is that an honorable position?

    DAN_8313

    The workshop

    Everyone was in agreement that it was not honorable. I agreed too. But if I had been giving the devotional on that passage I would not have focused on the honor or dishonor associated with the woman’s condition. I would have talked about the woman’s condition being painful or limiting. I think that most of my American friends would do the same. We would feel pity for the limitations or pain that such a condition would cause. If we prayed for someone with that condition, it would be to relieve the suffering and limitations that come with it.

    Not many of us would pray for relief from the dishonor. Think about the word we use to use about such conditions. We called them disabilities. The focus in that word is on the (supposed) lack of some ability. It is a dis-ABILITY. But my African friend focused on the dis-HONOR. Honor is so important to cultures here that, in a discussion of what makes for good teamwork, one of my Ivorian friends said that is it important to good teamwork that no members of the team bring it dishonor. If they behave in wrong ways, he explained, others will think that the whole team is bad and thereby lacking in honor.

    Different cultures bring different perspectives to the same text. My focus on the pain and limitations is not wrong or right nor was my African’s friend’s focus on dishonor wrong or right. Rather, we each bring a perspective that can enrich and expand the perspective of others.

    Voices of the PoorIn this case, the perspective of honor and dishonor is very helpful. First of all, it is almost certain that the woman and the people around her in her day had the same focus as my African friend – considering the lack of honor as important as the lack of ability or the experience of pain. So his perspective helps me to understand the incident more like Jesus and the others who were present at the actual event. Second, at the turn of the millennium, the World Bank asked 60,000 experts on poverty from 60 countries to give their perspective on poverty. These experts were the poor themselves. The results can be found in a book entitled Voices of the Poor. Here’s a quote from one of the experts:

    Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one’s dignity and drives one into total despair- a poor woman, Moldova.

    Voices of the Poor reveals that the poor experience poverty not just as lack of finances. They a feel the lack of respect, the dishonor. When I treat poverty as only a lack of finances, I miss an important way I can fight the effects of poverty – by giving respect to the poor. The same is true for people with dis-abilities, we can counter one of the effects by giving respect.

    Jesus brought honor to the woman by healing her. We can’t always heal, but we can follow Jesus’ example by treating with respect those others may disrespect. The person bringing the meditation noted that many of the peoples without the Scriptures are bent into an dishonorable position by poverty, by disdain, or through being marginalized by others. Not infrequently, they see the translation of the Bible into their languages as something that disperses some of their dishonor.

    Why the Old Testament – Poverty

    Four weeks ago, I introduced a series of blogs on the rationale for translating the Old Testament into the languages of Africa. As I stated in the introduction, there are a number of good reasons to translate the Old Testament. I am limiting myself to one proposition – that God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has little to say on those issues. Last week, I dealt with the issue of ethnic tensions and rivalries. This week, my topic is poverty.

    Combined HDI and Translation mapsThe map to the right shows the human development index for the countries of the world. The places in red score low on the index, meaning that people there are poor not just in terms of income, but also in terms of access to health care and in many other ways. If you compare the red and orange zones on that map with the map below it showing where there are the most languages without a translation of the Bible, you will see that there is a very significant overlap. In other words, poverty is a part of life for most peoples without the Bible.

    The Old Testament deals extensively with the subject of poverty. Much of the Old Testament treatment of poverty is in the form of story. The whole book of Ruth, for example, is a story of a family falling into poverty through a set of circumstances over which they had no control – a famine and then the death of the men in the family – followed by a partial recovery of prosperity. The Old Testament is rich in stories of oppression, wars, famines, widows, and orphans — all of which are related to poverty. As a rural farming society, God’s people were subject to the changing “fortunes” of the weather. Their crops were also subject to disease and insect pests. So we read of famines caused by lack of rain, and by pests, especially locusts. Africa is 60% rural and much of Africa’s rural population lives through subsistence farming. So its people face many of the same issues.

    Mobiot QuoteThe Old Testament lists several causes of poverty in addition to kinds of calamities listed in the previous paragraph. The book of Proverbs lists laziness as a cause of poverty. Poverty is also attributed to unjust economic practices and shows how that can be eliminated through righteous and unselfish leadership.

    The Old Testament paints a very realistic picture of poverty and its causes. Neither God nor the human authors of the Old Testament books hid the hard times God’s people went through. Many traditional religions say that calamities come when a person breaks the taboos of the religion. Or they may attribute them to the evil actions of others (i.e. witchcraft). The first blames the poor person for his the poverty caused by calamity and the second sows discord. The health and wealth gospel tends in the same direction – blaming the poor person for their poverty saying that they don’t have enough faith. Hardly any churches, however, go as far down that road as does the JCC church in Kenya where the pastor warns poor people not to attend.

    The Old Testament warns of the poverty-inducing effects of laziness and foolish decisions. But it also  displays a great deal of sympathy toward the poor. It has a message which poor believers in many parts of the world need, and need desperately — that their poverty is no their fault nor is it necessarily a judgment from God. The following verses are a good example of the Old Testament approach to poverty:

    But you are a tower of refuge to the poor, O  lord , a tower of refuge to the needy in distress. You are a refuge from the storm and a shelter from the heat. For the oppressive acts of ruthless people are like a storm beating against a wall, or like the relentless heat of the desert. But you silence the roar of foreign nations. As the shade of a cloud cools relentless heat, so the boastful songs of ruthless people are stilled.
    (Isa 25:4-5)

    Why translate the Old Testament? First, to counter the wrong messages about calamity and poverty found in traditional religions and even in the teachings of some churches. The messages about poverty in the Old Testament  give the world’s poorest people, including its poorest Christians, the comfort and instruction God has given for their situation, while the New Testament has much less to say on the topic.